The proposed changes to our child protection legislation take us back in time. They bury the vision of Püao-te-Āta-tü and signal a return to rescue-mentality foster care. The Children, Young Persons and their Families Act, 1989 set out to combat the effects of institutional racism by ensuring that children are understood in the context of whanau, the primary unit of Māori society. This emphasis is radically undermined by the proposed law changes. Securing safe and loving homes at the earliest opportunity is the new driving purpose. The outcomes will be discriminatory for Māori – not for middle class whanau mind, but for those at the bottom of the social and economic pile. This, according to the language of accountants, is where the unacceptable fiscal cost associated with benefits and prisons is generated. The most effective way to fix this is earlier removal, permanency and de-traumatisation. Cultural links can be maintained as part of individual identity but failing whanau can be written off. When it is stripped to the bone, this is the racist, classist and eugenic thinking we are up against. How have we come to this?
The current wave of social security and state social work reforms are located within a wider political and ideological framework. The direction for change was charted in the 2015 report of the Productivity Commission – Better Public Services. The Commission is a small Crown Entity with three Commissioners who represent a particular economic and business-interest perspective in relation to public services.
By the late 1990s the momentum of the initial blitzkrieg of neoliberal reform – privatisation, commercialisation and business model public sector redesign – had stalled. A naïve market model does not generate effective social services. Rather than rolling back the tide, the third way turn associated with the Clark Labour-led governments is best seen as a holding pattern.
It is also now clear that the neoliberal narrative as reflected in the projects of global corporates – radical commodification and marketization of all human exchange – is an empty economic philosophy which simply serves the interests of the very rich. This was dramatically illustrated in the global financial crisis of 2007/8. Monbiot (2016) raises the question of why such a thoroughly discredited discourse continues to replicate itself: why does this dead dogma survive?
Part of the answer lies in the absence of perceived alternatives and also in the ongoing power of the ideology. The current new and more sophisticated push for public sector privatisation (pushing the market onward to fresh feeding grounds) is premised upon the logic of independent reports, such as Better Public Services, which are, in fact, saturated with political bias. As the servant of powerful economic interests the zombie will walk for as long as it remains useful.
These business-speak reports (the Rebstock Expert Panel Report is another example) follow a particular style and form – assertion, guarded expansion, contraction and significant mind-numbing repetition. Underlying assumptions are alternately concealed or presented as facts. Persuasive rhetoric is disguised as neutral common sense. Inequality and social suffering are sanitised. Above all these documents are infused with a quality best described as hubris – a tone of deep arrogance and righteous condescension. Let’s have a quick look at how some of these elements are manifested in the Better Public Services document.
There is an undertone that public services are failing – particularly for the most vulnerable among us (how particularly sad). In part, this is a spin on one of the oldest privatisation gambits – if you run public services down enough, predictions of failure become self-fulfilling. Alleged failure is linked to the assertion that we don’t know enough about the drivers of poor outcomes. I wonder what it is that we don’t know, but I am guessing the fact that poverty is directly related to the unfair distribution of wealth and opportunity in our society is something which the Commission would prefer us not to think about. The argument is that social services are expected to solve social problems. If they don’t, social services are at fault. So … disadvantaged New Zealanders are disadvantaged because of under-performing social services. Are you with me so far? The answer lies, of course, in innovative flexible capitalism.
The report is filled with the language of investment, innovation and choice. Margaret Thatcher (1987) once pronounced that there is no such thing as society – merely self-sufficient individuals and families. This perception of people as micro-economic units permeates the report. We are told for example that, unfortunately, “people may not make optimum investment in themselves”. I assume we are talking about poverty here. The report goes on to enlighten us further: “One reason … is that a lack of information or inadequate access to finance can lead to private under-investment.” Poor market signals produce poverty perhaps? – That is my best guess. This sort of wisdom would, I think, be very expensive at half the price. We are instructed later that “… people, for many reasons, fail to take advantage of private markets.” I see?
Social services are essentially constructed as products in this mind-set. There are the now familiar and often contradictory mantras about breaking down evil silos, budgets following people, targeting funds for greatest net return, the need for agreed measures of value, new service models, service integration, a small cohesive committee to drive reform, evidence based programmes and provider accountability (given that we don’t know enough about what works). We are told the cure requires allowing service recipients greater choice and control – apart from the underclass “Quadrant D” group that is.
There is a predictable reference to the most expensive 10, 000 people. For this high risk group, the report literally slavers at the prospect of big data identifying individuals with an unacceptable Future Welfare Liability or Future Fiscal Liability. We are told that this accountancy formula can and should be applied to all client groups. Apparently it has worked a treat in the area of social security reform. The focus has been shifted from the damage our social and economic system inflicts upon marginalised people to the costs deviant and defective people visit upon our economy.
The prescribed cure is greater privatisation but the specifics are as clear as mud. There is talk of devolution, government stewardship, and enablement through budget and the data network. A great deal is made of commissioning social services. This is a disturbingly Orwellian concept. We are told that it is not the same as out-sourcing but we are never really quite told what it is, although at one point several differing definitions are offered by way of clarification. This is what I mean by hubris – the impressions is that if we don’t know what it means we are very silly (as per the Emperor and his new clothes), or that they don’t know what it means and therefore it will mean whatever they want it to mean at any given time, or perhaps that they know what it means but won’t tell us. It would be funny if it wasn’t real.
This report – like the Rebstock Review – is propaganda disguised as deep enquiry. It is drenched in hubris but what really worries me is the social cost that the zombie doctrine is inflicting.
Real social work with high needs families can protect children and regenerate whanau but it is now seen as too difficult, risky and expensive it seems. We are opting for the safety and love of a mythical middle New Zealand. We can find other ways to pretend to be culturally enlightened – “they need their identity don’t they?” John Rangihau himself and the many Mātua whāngai mokai who gave their hearts and life’s strength to his vision will be spinning in their graves.
Department of Social Welfare,. (1986). Puao-Te-Ata-Tu (Daybreak) Report of a Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare. Wellington: Author. https://www.msd.govt.nz/documents/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/archive/1988-puaoteatatu.pdf
Monbiot, G. (2016). The Zombie Doctrine. Guardian Newspaper, April, 2016. www.monbiot.com/2016/04/15/the-zombie–doctrine/
Thatcher, M. Interview for Woman’s Day (“No such thing a society’), September, 1987. www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689